Among the many delights of John Chester‘s The Biggest Little Farm is its assortment of visual and aural material. The cinematic fullness of the documentary, which on paper just seems like a simple, unexciting story of a couple who moves from the city to the country and attempts to do some extreme gardening, is the reason why it’s one of the highest-grossing nonfiction films this year.
For the layered soundscape, we can thank a number of people, including Chester and his wife, Molly, via their conversational narration (written by Chester and doc scripter extraordinaire Mark Monroe), along with go-to nature film sound editor Kate Hopkins, sound designer Alex Knickerbocker, and of course, Emmy Award-winning composer Jeff Beal, whose score stands out without being overbearing.
It’s a perfectly fitting and catchy score, the kind that makes you wonder why more documentary music isn’t so good or at least why it’s not as recognized. Hence the rare occasion of my interviewing a composer on this site. I recently talked to Beal by phone to discuss the fact that documentary scores are typically overlooked in general while also chatting about the Biggest Little Farm score itself.
Nonfics: This film was in the works for so many years. When did you come on board?
Jeff Beal: I was actually hired relatively late in the process because I was actually the second composer to come on board. I wouldn’t say we rushed, but we didn’t have a lot of time to waste either. The good news about that is the film was pretty much formed. There were probably some slight little editing changes but everything was begging for the score at this point.
Is it rare to come on to a documentary project so late?
The digital tools that now are ubiquitous and we take for granted have really changed the relationship between composer and filmmaker in the sense that a lot of times, especially in film (TV is different because the production flow is just much more intense in terms of deadlines and multiple things), you will be writing to something that isn’t a locked picture.
I’m fine with that because in a sense the presence of music can sometimes help a filmmaker focus the film and discover things about the edit that maybe they didn’t see before. I actually kind of enjoy that. It’s a little more work for the composer because the editing is such a huge part of the story — you find the story in a documentary, obviously, in the editing room — so this was unusual in the sense that the film was pretty much all done.
And how did you become involved?
Sandra Keats, who was our producer — I had worked with her before on a Jessica Yu documentary called Last Call at the Oasis. I remember her telling me, “I’m working on this documentary about a farm,” and I have to confess, we joke about it now, but I thought, “Who’s gonna watch that?” In an elevator pitch size sentence, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. Of course, then I saw the film and I was like, “Wow, I totally gotta do this.”
How much input did the director have on your score, then?
John understood his story really well by the time I got involved. He’s been making this for eight years. We definitely talked about things that felt, that sounded, organic. Because it is a film that’s literally about the earth, about the soil, the things that go into having healthy soil. And obviously the rural world context sort of was suggesting organic and what I would say is quintessentially rural American sounds.
I love the banjo. I haven’t used it on a lot of scores. You sort of have to pick and choose. That was definitely a part of this. With the banjo, I actually brought out a bow and bowed it sometimes, which created a nice, tense drone for some of the more suspenseful beats of the movie, like the fires or when the coyote is attacking, all those kind of things. I love percussion and I actually had some things lying around that I played on the score like a washboard and some wood blocks that just felt very handmade and not fancy, not highbrow. Harmonica. A little bit of accordion.
That was really sort of one aspect of the instrumentation. Then the other side, which was maybe, even more, a process of discovery with us was the more orchestral part of the palette, which is in the film from the very beginning all the way to the end obviously. From John’s point of view, that probably wasn’t what he was initially thinking the film would sustain over the course of the 90 minutes, but I felt pretty strongly that even though it’s a small, intimate film, it’s got some really big ideas and some very big emotional beats, which I feel like earned and deserved that sweep of an orchestra even in the very beginning when they’re having their dream of the farm and it’s fun and more whimsical.
I wanted to make sure that wasn’t too cute and that it’s almost like the beauty of naïveté when you’re young and you have this big dream and you have no idea how hard it’s going to be and you don’t really think about that and that’s sort of the way that naïveté can lead you to something really unique and special. That’s something I wanted to do, I didn’t want to laugh at them from the beginning, I felt like John and Molly as characters in the film are really important and you see the film through their journey of this whole process.
Did you create different themes for different animal characters?
I used a bass flute to represent [Emma the pig] in the movie. It’s kind of like this sexy, low thing you think more of in a Henry Mancini score. I just felt like she was the embodiment of maternal and feminine — she was fertile. So that was kind of fun to play around with her. Greasy the rooster was maybe like a violin. Actually, one of my favorite scenes in the movie that illustrates that is that wonderful little silent movie where Greasy is working his way into Emma’s pen, where he would spend the night every night. It’s this little dance.
Especially with a film this layered with sound, including the animal noises and nature, was it tough to work around all that?
I really love that more sound design or sound painting approach to music. I feel the timbre of the sound of a score, the sort of tactile timbre of it in terms of how it feels with the film, often is maybe 50 percent of what it’s doing at any given moment to the picture. I think a lot about sound. I always write with the dialogue on, and in this case the sound. That scene I just mentioned. Emma and Greasy having their moment, there’s always music in effects and sound. I was trying to tailor the score around the natural sound and make it complement it and not always compete with it but leave room for it.
To that, can you talk about working around the prevalence of the voiceover narration and conversations? Was that all part of the film when you came on?
It was definitely part of the way John structured the film. They were mostly there, so I kind of knew they were there as an element. There’s a scene towards the end, which I love, it’s a very climactic scene when the whole flywheel has really begun to work. There’s a beautiful scene where the hawks are chasing the birds away from the fruit and the snakes are catching the gophers, and it’s all working. It’s a really big moment in the film, but there’s also some very important voiceover which is sort of carrying you through some of that information. That was an example where we really wanted to have our cake and eat it, too. We wanted the music to be really immersive and emotionally full, but also you wanted to make sure that the words could come through.
The best answer I can give is in my other experience doing dramatic TV like House of Cards, which is a very dialogue-heavy show or things like that over the years, I’ve just sort of learned to really treat dialogue as an important element in a film and really write around it so it’s part of the music. You don’t want to compete with it, you want to be additive to it and sort of create a soundscape that allows it to breathe and be present without feeling like they were fighting each other.
Speaking of your TV work, aside from your breakout with Pollock, you’ve mostly scored dramatic television but then in film, it’s mostly documentaries. Has that been a conscious direction?
It’s funny. I have done a few feature films, but definitely not as many as documentaries. I would probably say as much as I found them, documentaries kind of found me. Pollock, for example, was a drama, but it was a biographical drama based on a true story. Certainly, I have done things that are fiction, as well, but I think right now documentary filmmaking is one of the most creative areas of filmmaking, bar none. I’ll be at a festival and ask people what they’ve seen that they really like, and nine times out of 10 they’ll come back at me with a documentary.
And I just think the barrier to entry in terms of economics has been lowered, so what’s happened is filmmakers have been able to capture some amazing things. I also think documentaries by definition, they never have a lot of money for CGI or fancy bells and whistles, so to really be viable as a film and be ready to hire a composer you’ve got to have a great story or you’ve got nothing. You can hide in a bigger film behind CGI or bombast and that kind of stuff.
It’s an interesting thing to ponder after all these years, what are you doing and why are you doing it. Although I have done some more pure entertainment projects, I tend to get called for things that I would call more story-driven or more actor-driven. That’s where I’ve found my niche as a composer. And I don’t know why other than the fact that for whatever reason my musical voice seems to live and thrive in those situations.
I do like and have really enjoyed the bigger pieces I’ve done for TV like Rome or House of Cards or things that have a lot of size — Carnivale early in my career. Those are really fun, too, it’s just a question of what opportunities there are.
Is there any distinction for you in approaching a documentary score compared to those for dramatic TV or movies?
I think my answer has evolved over the years, in all honesty. I really feel like now, there isn’t any difference. In each case, when you make a movie you’re already setting up an artificial filter through which to view a story. So, a good score tries to express the truth of whatever that is up on the screen, or enhance it. I think as long as the music comes from the point of view of the honesty of the material or the honesty of the character, there isn’t a whole lot of difference.
The only other small distinction I might make is often the narrative point of view in a documentary might be less defined by characters; there might be a narrator who is sort of more like the voice of God. In this film, for example, you might be following that thread as opposed to feeling the story specifically through spoken dialogue on screen. So sometimes there is more of a philosophical lens in documentary filmmaking, but I often find that can be really useful in dramatic features as well.
The lines are becoming increasingly blurred to great effect. It’s something I’m very interested in from the cinematic perspective. I’m actually working on a commission right now for a silent movie for the LA Master Chorale, it’s F.W. Murnau’s film Sunrise. And I’m looking at this footage that’s almost 100 years old and just observing it and musically approaching it. I’ve found in the writing of that, the translation of something that’s even incredibly removed from our reality can have a real visceral effect to a modern-day audience with a more contemporary lens musically.
A lot of documentary scores don’t seem the best fit for their films. And also there are people who don’t want a lot of score in documentary because it’s not part of the truth of the story. What are your thoughts on that issue?
Yeah, the verite style is really the true documentary. As soon as you bring in more cinematic elements, you’re sort of betraying the genre. I think that debate is being settled by the audiences and the fact that I think Michael Moore‘s films were a big part of that in the early years. He was very liberal in his use of more cinematic music. Every film is different, but I think audiences have come to appreciate and be totally at home with a documentary film that has a really sort of involved score — an emotionally invested score is maybe how I’d describe it as opposed to a hands-off verite approach.
When I did The Queen of Versailles for Lauren Greenfield, I remember watching the film very early on and there was very little music, and it was wonderful. It felt almost like Grey Gardens. But we discovered in the making of that, in terms of the story Lauren wanted to tell, that music even in that film, which was much more verite style film, we committed much more to a musical score for that. It has to follow the filmmaker, the material, and the type of experience you’re making.
Obviously, from a composer’s point of view, we’re always excited when a documentary film feels like it can sustain a more committed score. The fact that this film has had such a powerful emotional effect on people, I’m really proud of that because that’s part of the reason we have cinema, to involve the heart in the story. Blackfish is another great example of that where we weren’t afraid to be committed emotionally to the material. And that was really gratifying; the way that film connected with audiences was obviously hugely a big part of effecting some real change out in the world, which is one of the other beautiful things about documentary films is they can move the needle in terms of public perception or the zeitgeist.
Also, with a film like The Biggest Little Farm or Blackfish, you have the material there. The music isn’t manipulating our emotions because the weight of the content already exists, it’s more of an enhancement.
If it’s not there on the screen, yeah, that’s always a danger zone. I often talk about the idea of earned emotion. Emotions are great if you feel you’ve earned them. I’m very careful in the writing of the score to try to make it feel like the film has served up the justification for where we’re going. In the case of John’s film, it was really a pleasure because I felt he had so much great visual material to draw from, and obviously from the story had these really emotional beats.
I think about this whole idea of impermanence. Alan, the wonderful man who comes into the story and you’re not sure if he’s an unreliable narrator, who basically becomes the brains behind this whole thing, whom we lose tragically in the film, his passing, the ache of that, is really felt and earned. Of course, in the end, anyone who’s a parent, the beautiful way the editor cut the birthing of a calf with the birth of their son, that’s just a really powerful moment. It’s a journey we all take as humans, and animals have that journey too.
What are some of your favorite documentary scores?
I love what Gary Lionelli did with O.J.: Made in America. Philip Glass‘ The Fog of War is another one. Those two are really great ones. I love the Planet Earth shows, some of those are Hans [Zimmer], The Blue Planet, which is George Fenton. Some really beautiful music has been written for documentaries. March of the Penguins is another great one. Another wonderful Emmy Award-winning composer (Alex Wurman) wrote that.
Those are all great and haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve. Why do you think documentary scores aren’t regarded as much as narrative film scores?
I think we are, unfortunately, right now, in terms of recognition, in a bit of a ghetto. But who knows, maybe things will change. I would love to see it for The Biggest Little Farm. It’s frustrating from a composer only in the sense that when you get to the sort of horse race of awards season, it seems that it’s always about the end title song. We actually have a really great end title song in this movie that is fantastic by the way (“Sun, Flood, or Drought” by The Avett Brothers), but the idea that the only thing that can be thought of as a contender is the end title song when you’ve got maybe 75 or 80 minutes of something that precedes that is obviously sort of strange.
I think the artists are always ahead of the perception from those sorts of things, so maybe as we keep doing this, hopefully, some of the awards recognition might follow.